How Talking Cedar Became the First Legally Operated Tribal-Owned Brewery and Distillery - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Talking Cedar Became the First Legally Operated Tribal-Owned Brewery and Distillery

What started as a plan for a destination hotel in Grand Mound, Washington, quickly transformed into something more complex, triggering a chain of events that would reshape history. David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, knew the tribe would greatly benefit from a gathering space that built off the success of the nearby Great Wolf Lodge and Lucky Eagle Casino. While exploring the concept of a destination hotel, however, the tribe was introduced to Heritage Distilling—a distillery based in Gig Harbor, Washington, with several tasting rooms in Washington and Oregon—and a partnership was formed. Together, they devised a plan for a destination brewery and distillery that would be owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation—the first legal tribal-owned distillery to exist on tribal land. “One of the key things that it brings is further diversity,” says Burnett. “It reinforces the path we’ve been on for a while, which is to get into other types of businesses so we’re not entirely reliant on one.”

The tribe submitted a business plan to the U.S. Department of the Interior in early 2018, but shortly before breaking ground, they were informed of an outdated statute from 1834 that banned distilleries on tribal land. “It had never been enforced in 184 years,” says Justin Stiefel, co-founder and CEO of Heritage Distilling. “Back then, tribal enterprise didn’t even exist.”

Though violating the statute would only be a civil offense, the team decided that if they were going to continue to pursue the project, they were going to do it right. “I think I just don’t like being told ‘no,’ ” Burnett says with a laugh. “We were going to do what we needed to do in order to make it happen.”

Over the course of nine months, the tribe introduced a bill to Congress that would repeal the Andrew Jackson–era law—an effort that was endorsed by several of the state’s representatives, including Jaime Herrera Beutler, Denny Heck, and Derek Kilmer. In the same span of time, the U.S.’s trade war with China posed an additional hurdle, as the price of steel began to skyrocket. “We took advantage of those nine months to redesign the entire building out of wood,” Stiefel says.

The bill passed in late 2018, enabling Talking Cedar to begin construction, and it opened to the public this past June as the first legally operated tribal-owned brewery and distillery. With 35,000 square feet of space and the ability to produce 10,000 barrels of whiskey and approximately 1.5 million proof gallons of other spirits annually, there’s more to Talking Cedar than its underdog backstory. The distillery space alone boasts 15,000 square feet for its tasting room and eight fermentation tanks, including a unique, continuous still system created by a partner in Italy. “In terms of production capacity, it’s one of the largest craft distilleries west of the Mississippi,” Stiefel says.

Among the spirits produced are some of Heritage Distilling’s staples, including a blended whiskey, and an assortment of flavored vodkas, as well as specialty spirits exclusive to Talking Cedar. The facility will also be part of Heritage’s Cask Club—a membership-based program that gives members the opportunity to select spirits for a personal 10-liter barrel that’s displayed at the distillery. With Heritage handling the distillery side, however, it was the brewery that would require some additional guidance. “The question was, how do we break into a really crowded market that we know nothing about?” Burnett says.

After considering a partnership with a local brewery, the tribe decided to hire a brewer—Bill Lundeen, who previously worked for breweries including Harmon Brewing in Tacoma and Bridgeport Brewing in Portland, and is now the director of brewery operations for Talking Cedar—and create its own brand. A pastry stout, a Kolsch, and a selection of IPAs are a few of the label’s current offerings, in addition to a regular rotation of one-offs, such as a Samoa-cookie-inspired stout. “We’re creating good technical beers with some really interesting creativity,” says Lundeen.

Talking Cedar was producing about 14 barrels of beer a week in late 2020, and the 60-barrel brewhouse aims to be in full operation sometime early this year, utilizing equipment from the former Redhook Brewery in Woodinville. With six 120-barrel fermenters, the increased production will lead to a slew of new releases and opportunities, including cans, a larger mixed-culture fermentation program, and some darker, Belgian-style offerings. “This isn’t the biggest brewery I’ve ever worked on, but it’s right up there,” Lundeen says. “We’re doing some edgy stuff, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Separate spaces for the distillery, brewery, and a pub-style restaurant are a few of the facility’s features, as well as a couple of massive conference rooms that overlook the production floors. Burnett says one of the main focuses was to create a gathering space for people of all ages. “We thought, if we do it right, we can become a destination,” he says.

Though Lucky Eagle Casino has been a large economic force for the tribe, ventures like Talking Cedar help create new revenue streams and careers. According to Burnett, Talking Cedar alone will produce an estimated 100 new jobs, ranging from brewing and distilling to quality control and marketing. “This project is an expression of sovereignty,” Burnett says.

Though alcoholism has negatively impacted the lives of tribal members over the years, Burnett says the tribal government has addressed the issue directly with fully funded social and mental health programs. “We crossed the border of ethical dilemmas when we opened the Lucky Eagle Casino on our reservation 25 years ago,” he says. “We’re a people with a deep sense of history, but we’re also an optimistic people, with hope for the future.”

Both Stiefel and Lundeen say the cultural and historical impact played a significant role in their interest in the project. “Self-determination is an important thing,” Stiefel says. “The Chehalis Tribe made the decision to sell beer, wine, and spirits years ago. This is just the next step, and we’re respectful of that.”

According to Stiefel, the Talking Cedar project led to an influx of proposals from tribes across the country. As of last June, Heritage had received requests from dozens of tribes, and the company was in discussion with a few. “It’s the next evolution,” Stiefel says. “My fear is that we don’t have the full appreciation of how many incoming requests we’re going to have.”

For Talking Cedar, part of this evolution includes looking for ways to partner with other tribes, Burnett says, including creating customized products that they can label and sell. “The word is out, and the interest is there,” he says.

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